Exercise: Forced or Freeing?
What's REALLY driving your workouts?
Here it is, raining on a precious summer morning, and here I am, churning away on the basement elliptical when I’d rather be surrounded by flowers & birds as I do cardio step on the deck. (That’s also how I imagine Snow White works out.) Yep, I’m forcing this exercise—way more than I’d have to during winter when the basement gym is a favorite hideaway.
We all have to cajole, push, or shove ourselves into workouts some days. But if exercise perpetually feels like some kind of hostage negotiation, you may be caught in a common trap. It can mean that your foundational reasons for exercising have grown rickety. So...
As one of my favorite classic SNL characters, Linda Richman, might say, (use your best New York accent), “Exercise: Forced or Freeing? Discuss amongst yourselves.” Here we go.
The hardcore among us might be thinking, what’s all this poor-baby-has-to-force-a workout mumbo jumbo? Suck it up and sweat, right? The problem sneaks in when you begin mixing up the words exercise and punishment—or any word that hints at punishment—in conversation (especially those that occur with yourself in your mind). Per operant conditioning behavior theory, a person is more likely to complete a task when spurred on by positive reward not punishment. So, beating your butt into a workout CAN work for a while but probably won’t last longterm.
But you say, I do receive a reward. I stay skinny. I look younger. My partner tells me he/she is proud of me (from the sofa with a bag of chips... JK). YES, these ARE potentially positive outcomes, and I wholeheartedly agree that it feels great not to use the rubber band maternity trick on your jeans, to look fit beyond your age, and to have a cheerleader. Even these things, believe it or not, don’t serve as the BEST motivators. Behavior change experts strongly promote intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. According to a Psychology Today article by David Burkus, “Extrinsic motivation is any reason we do the work other than the joy of doing the work itself. Anything that we are promised for doing the work or anything that we get as a result of doing the work are all extrinsic motivators.” Holy cow! That covers the aforementioned reasons plus pretty much ALL others—aside from truly living as an elliptical fanatic! (And personally, while I don’t mind my elliptical, it does NOT siren call me to the basement, either.)
When I coach myself or clients, I like to add a caveat to the above definition. Yes, you dang well better find physical activities you honestly enjoy for their own sake, or your efforts will likely tank when sheer will gives a last gasp. But I also believe, as many trainers/ health coaches do, that having strong inner reasons to exercise will propel you far.
Inner motivation will vary from person to person, but one thing I’m comfortable saying is that it seems to emanate from the spirit, from a sense of the kind of life we want to be living while we’re here. So, yes, it’s essential to ENJOY the type of workout you’ve chosen (okay, or at least not despise it), but it's also truly crucial to position exercise as a path to bigger things. Like what? Some people work out so they can play with their kids or grandkids. Some do it so they can excel at a sport. Some do it as homage to a precious body that just fought (or is living with) an illness. Some need to be fit for a job or just need to function in ways they could not sans exercise routine. Some just want to be here—and healthy—for a really long time. (Me, by the way.) We need not complicate inner motivation. We just have to identify it. And remember it daily.
If your routine feels incredibly forced, before you quit it altogether, step back and ask why. Many times, we don’t even see the REAL reasons that lurk behind feeling cornered into repeating a workout chore daily. For example, in our culture, exercise is often a quest for the “perfect bod.” But appearance is actually a very flimsy motivator. Only a fraction of it lies within our control—definitely an extrinsic driver. It’s fine to want to look good, but when it’s the only factor fueling workouts, it often ultimately backfires. So, where do we start when we’re seeking more solid reasons to regularly sweat?
First, cover the nuts and bolts. Are you repeating workouts that NEVER stop feeling like drudgery? You may need to explore some other formats. Second, honestly answer the question: Why AM I doing this every day? If the response has something to do with others’ (including “the world’s”) perceptions and expectations of you, you may want to seek firmer ground. If the answer has anything to do with the larger realms of life, health, meaning, purpose, and/or soul, you’ve found it.
This has been my experience anyway. Thank you for the privilege of sharing it. We all find a variety of ways to keep on chugging. May you find YOUR most powerful path forward.